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Seattle businesses make stand against homeless ordinance

Many of the people staying outside the King County Administration Building were displaced when the Seattle Housing and Resource Effort, or SHARE, had to shut down several shelters for lack of money. (KIRO 7)

Seattle’s business community is making its stand against a proposed homeless ordinance that aims to allow individuals to camp in public spaces.

“I’ve never been more concerned and dismayed or more frightened for our city’s future — if this ordinance or any version of it is allowed to get through,” said Tom Norwalk, president and CEO of Visit Seattle.

The homeless ordinance at the center of all the controversy was not drafted by city or elected officials. Rather, it was crafted by local homeless advocates, including the ACLU. They argue that the current approach of ousting those people experiencing homelessness is inefficient and unreasonable.

How the ACLU homeless ordinance could set new precedent in Seattle

“The crux of the ordinance (is) that if someone is in a situation that is safe, suitable and is not hazardous, then the city would need to work with that individual to find housing that has the potential of being long term …” said Elisabeth Smith, legislative director with the ACLU.

The homeless ordinance aims to allow people camping in public spaces the choice to stay so long as they are not creating a hazard. The ordinance creates an 11-member committee dedicated to the public camping issue. It also sets up standards for providing written notice should people be forced out of a camp and for finding them a new site. It creates a framework for the city to provide trash and sanitary services to camps with more than five people. And it institutes a $250 fine that the city must pay to campers should it violate the ordinance.

These types of public spaces are known to most Seattleites and people driving through town — along the side of the road, under bridges, etc. According to the City of Seattle’s municipal code, camping in public spaces is prohibited: “It is unlawful to camp in any park except at places set aside and posted for such purposes by the Superintendent.”

It becomes a little unclear where the line is drawn for camping in parks. According to the ACLU, not every location in the city is OK for camping — and the ordinance addresses that as “unsuitable” locations. Smith said that parks would fit into that definition.

“Unsuitable locations are those in which there is a public use and someone living in that space would affect the public use,” Smith said.

But even if a person, or a group, camped in such an unsuitable public space, despite public use, the ordinance would require that they are given a 48-hour notice to move.

“We are not saying it is a perfect ordinance, but we feel really strongly that it goes a long way to protect the health and safety of all members of our community,” Smith said.

“Some people are unable to go to shelters because they don’t have the identification necessary, etc.,” she said. “So what we need is a more tailored response to all the situations in which people find themselves. The ordinance sets up a framework to allow the city to respond to whatever situation a person is in.”

Business concerns vs. homeless ordinance

The ordinance has startled some in the area. Former Attorney General Rob McKenna said it could set a new precedent in Seattle. And it’s not the first time a city has dabbled with allowing some form of camping to accommodate homelessness. Portland has experimented with allowing camping on sidewalks and rights of way between 9 p.m. to 7 a.m. But that also prompted action from the local business community.

Visit Seattle is a tourism-based marketing organization that promotes Seattle and King County travel. As its president, Norwalk argues the proposed ordinance, despite its compassionate aim, will ultimately not benefit the area.

“Outside of the compassion and the need to get a handle on the problem, allowing encampments to grow and to have services totally changes the course of the city,” Norwalk said. “I think it will be a tragedy if it happens.

“If you were to look at encampments, at the illegal behaviors, the safety issues, the drug use — if you were to overlay crime maps and statistics you would see a direct correlation that it is fostering additional bad behavior,” he said. “That is affecting those of us who live here and work here.

Norwalk said that numerous consultants that have come to the city and have said that this type of approach does not change behavior and it doesn’t help people find housing.

“I think this is something that will plague us forever,” he said.

Norwalk also alleges that the current city council does not have a good voting record that is beneficial to local small businesses.

“I think what really scares many people of the city is our city council and their voting record on any number of initiatives and legislation that might typically not align with general or building interest downtown,” he said.

Seattle’s Chamber of Commerce is also organizing a letter-writing campaign in an effort to make its voice heard on the city council.

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